Please note: This piece discusses some aspects of my personal sex life — not in a lot of detail, but it may be a bit too much information for family members and others who don’t want to read about my sex life. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
This argument gets used a lot by people who are against porn, prostitution, other kinds of sex work. And those of us who have actually been in sex work and not loathed it (or who know people who have) tend to counter simply by offering counter-examples: raising our hands, pointing to ourselves and each other, saying, “Me. Over here. Did sex work. Liked it (or didnât hate it). Not a basket case. Case closed.”
But I think there’s a core assumption underlying the argument, one that makes it hard to argue against merely by offering boring old evidence. And it’s an assumption that doesn’t just apply to sex work. It’s an assumption that gets applied to all kinds of sexual variation… and not with very happy results.
The assumption is this:
“Everyone must like — and dislike — the same sexual things I do.”
(And letâs not forget the parallel notion: If other people don’t enjoy things that I do enjoy, there must be something wrong with them as well. They must be repressed, uptight, out of touch with their bodies. The sex-positive world can fall prey to these assumptions, too. I certainly have. “Everyone is basically bisexual, if they would just be honest with themselves”… Loki in Heaven, was I ever really that young?)
It’s a terrible argument. Stupid, illogical, harmful.
But I actually have more sympathy for it than you might imagine.
Food, music, sex: all of these are powerful, visceral, intensely personal, even overwhelming experiences. And it’s very hard to step back from them and have perspective on how other people might feel about them. Our own feelings about them can be so intense, so all-encompassing, that it makes perspective difficult, even counter-intuitive.
But when it comes to food and music, we have years of experience to teach us perspective. People talk about their musical and culinary tastes loudly, proudly, in great detail and at great length. You often can’t get people to shut up about it. Weâre exposed to a wide variety of musical and culinary tastes almost every day of our lives.
But when it comes to sex, most of us don’t get that kind of training. People don’t come back to work on Mondays and chat about how they tried spanking over the weekend, they way they’ll chat about how they tried a new Moroccan restaurant or went to see a German funk band their brother told them about. They don’t go to parties and share a funny story about the new buttplug they just bought, the way they’ll tell a funny story about trying to make a salmon souffle for their in-laws or the weird harpist who opened for Radiohead. (Well, they sometimes do at my parties… but you know what I mean.) Most of us haven’t been regaled with myriad and varied stories about exactly what kinds of sex other people like, and why exactly they like it.
And I think that casual barrage is exactly what we need to break through the intensely personal, intensely visceral nature of our sensual experience and give us perspective on it. It’s what we need to teach us that other people really and truly feel differently about sex than we do.
What’s more, it’s what we need to teach us this, not just with one or two specific examples, but as a general principle. People will often get it about one particular sexual variation, without getting it about sexual variation in general. I mean, plenty of straight people genuinely understand that gay people actually do enjoy their gay sex… but still have to start from scratch when it comes to SM or blowjobs or sex work.
Because while offering “Don’t tell me what I like! I do so like that!” counter-examples may not work in any particular argument over any particular sexual variation, I think that in the long run, it’s exactly what we need to make these arguments eventually go away. I think if we want a world where people have perspective on their own sexual likes and dislikes, a world where we treat varied tastes in sex the way we treat varied tastes in music or food, we need to talk more about what we do and donât like in bed. We need to give each other counter-examples, and plenty of ’em. We need to give each other a world where the basic fact of sexual variation is commonplace, familiar… and unsurprising.